by Rob Moseley
EUGENE, Ore. — This past winter, Kat Mertz took over an Oregon women's soccer team that was somewhat adrift.
The Ducks were reeling from four straight losing seasons, and eighth-year coach Tara Erickson's contract had been allowed to expire. Onto the scene came Mertz, the former UCLA assistant who took Nevada-Las Vegas to the NCAA Tournament twice as head coach.
The ensuing spring, in which the Ducks held regular workouts and five scrimmages, was not without further difficulty, notably a knee injury that will sideline midfielder Kelsey Foo for the upcoming season. But Mertz saw signs of a tougher, more disciplined team as it fought through that challenge and others.
Today she'll get the next chance to assess her Ducks' prospects for the 2013 season, when the soccer team holds its first practice of the fall. As Mertz looks to build on the progress Erickson made — finishing one game under .500 over eight years — her immediate goals relate more to things like work ethic and system discipline than win-loss totals and postseason chances.
"It's an important year for us to put our mark as far as our mentality, and what Oregon soccer is," Mertz said.
The schedule is somewhat kind to the Ducks, who play their first nine regular-season games at home, beginning Aug. 23 against Portland State. Six days earlier, Oregon is at UC Davis for an exhibition game, which will be a benchmark event for Mertz.
The Ducks and Aggies also scrimmaged in the spring. UC Davis had a late 2-1 lead that day, during which Foo was lost with a torn ACL. Among those pressed into more significant action as a result was sophomore-to-be Brooke Strawn, who scored to give Oregon a 2-2 tie.
"It was nice to see our girls fight for that extra goal," Mertz said. "And I think if we would have had a couple more minutes, we probably would have put the game away. Whereas, if we'd played that game earlier in the spring, I think our girls would have given up. So it was great to see that mentality switch."
When the rematch takes place next week, "it will be really fun to see how far we've progressed," Mertz said.
Foo's injury is one of several that has Oregon entering the season with a thin roster; the Ducks have 19 healthy field players, a half-dozen less than normal. The depth is such that freshman Ashlee Schulz, a graduate of nearby Thurston High in Springfield who joined the team for spring practices, has a shot to be a starter.
But they returned their leading goal scorer from 2012, sophomore Kristen Parr, and also junior goalkeeper Abby Steele, who has played in 38 of 40 games in her career so far. In all, Mertz will have a cast of 14 players that return experience from last season.
"Our core is great for a coaching staff to build something off of," Mertz said. "We've got great leaders, good soccer players. …
"We've got great, competitive fighters. They want to win. It's just sometimes (about) knowing how to win — how to put a game away in the last two minutes, how to hold on to a lead. I think these kids have really bought in, and that's what you want."
Part of the buy-in relates to Mertz's strategic philosophies. She wants to see a more methodical approach from the Ducks than they've shown in years past.
Among the team's weapons is junior Bri Pugh, whom Mertz calls the fastest player in the Pac-12. A year ago, Oregon's offense occasionally boiled down to Hail Mary passes deep down the field to take advantage of Pugh's speed. This fall, Mertz wants to see her midfielders more involved in the attack.
"What we need to do is just be more organized," Mertz said. "It's not necessarily more defensive-minded, it's just making sure we're organized so we can attack easily out of that system. …
"Having a good, organized defense leads into a quick-transition offense. That's what we're looking for."
The development Mertz saw in the spring provided hope the Ducks will hit the ground running this week. They'll look to maintain their tradition of strong nonconference play over the next month, against the likes of Portland State, Wisconsin and Texas, where Mertz was an assistant in 2010-11.
The next step will be to become more competitive in the Pac-12. The Ducks were 0-5 on the road in conference play last season, a mark Mertz will look to address in the coming years.
For now, though, Mertz will work on instilling a new mentality in the Ducks, a process that began when she was hired last December.
"I've had seven months now to prepare for where we are," Mertz said. "But it's been a whirlwind."